Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center forms the backdrop to Colum McCann's stunning novel 'Let The Great World Spin'

The National Book Award for fiction for 2009 has gone to Irish author Colm McCann who lives in New York for his book "Let the Great World Spin."

The book is set in New York in 1974 when a French tightrope walker Philippe Petit walked between the two towers of the Twin Towers, creating a massive publicity stunt.

Using that as the backdrop McCann examines the New York of that time.

The award is one of the most prestigious in literature and is considered close to Pultizer Prize status. It catapults McCann to instant prominence in America. Many consider him better regarded in Europe than in the country where he lives but that will now change.

The reviewer for The New York Times said the book will "sneak up on you."

"It begins slowly and quietly on the other side of the ocean. There, in a seaside town in Ireland (McCann was born in Dublin but now lives in New York), we are introduced to two of its central characters, a budding monk named Corrigan and his aimless brother, Ciaran.

"They soon find their way to a bleak project in the 1970s South Bronx (“Kids on the 10th floor aimed television sets at the housing cops who patrolled below”), where Corrigan informally ministers to the prostitutes who peddle their wares beneath the Major Deegan Expressway while Ciaran tends bar at an Irish pub in Queens and tries to make sense of the strange life that his ascetic brother has chosen.

"From here, the book’s sweep gradually expands as the brothers’ story collides with those of several others, among them an aging black hooker, a Guatemalan nurse and a 20-something artist.

"The circle continues to widen, six-degrees-of-separation-style, with the players growing ever more diverse."
McCann himself said to the Los Angeles Times "In a certain way, novelists become unacknowledged historians, because we talk about small, tiny, little anonymous moments that won't necessarily make it into the history books."

He told New York magazine that "I think we need stories, and we need to tell the stories over and over and over not only to remind us, but to be able to have that clarity of experience that changes us, so that we know who we are now because of who we have been at some other time."

I suppose it’s not a very original image. Halfway through writing this novel I heard about the documentary [Man on Wire], which sort of freaked me out. But I went to see it and realized they didn’t intrude on one another. The book pretends to be about him at first and then it becomes something else, because I’m much more interested in those who, I suppose, are walking the tightrope on the ground, and it’s a shorter fall but sometimes it thumps a lot harder.

The book had been highly praised before it own the National Prize.

The late Frank McCourt was one of its champions. “Now I worry about Colum McCann," he said before his death. "What is he going to do after this blockbuster groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel? No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper,” he said.